As a young child, 21-year-old Bwela Nchimunya Moombe lost her sister to HIV/AIDS. Today, she is an outspoken advocate for the rights of women in her community.
By Bwela Nchimunya Moombe
They say people come and go in our lives, but when she left us, it left a deep scar in my heart. Your memory will live on forever, my dearest sister. Rest in peace.
I was nine years old when I lost my sister to the deadly AIDS virus. Every time I narrate this story, I can’t help but struggle to hold back my tears. In my culture, it is considered a great wealth to have a family of girl children, and losing one is the greatest loss imaginable. And yet, it is a common occurrence here in Zambia. 14.3% of our 13.3 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS, the majority being women.
I grew up in the suburbs of Ndola, Zambia. As a child, I loved to play on my mother’s farm, where she grew maize, soya beans, and groundnuts. I still remember playing hide and seek amidst the crops, smiling and feeling immensely happy.
But despite this happiness, I was always haunted by the condition of my sister. It was a living nightmare to watch her body deteriorate and waste away. And this was made more difficult by the silence that surrounded it.
My family did not tell me what was going on with my beloved sister, only that she was ill. In 2002, before the government declared Zambia’s AIDS epidemic an emergency, it was hard for people to talk openly about HIV/AIDS. Even today, stigma makes it difficult to discuss the condition, but we have come a long way and now it is more common to hear about the disease.
"What is wrong with my sister?" I would constantly ask my mother and father. They did not give me a straight answer. I continued living life full of suspicion and inner grief. I always prayed for my sister's health as my dad convinced me she was only suffering from Tuberculosis.
Before people could openly talk about AIDS, Tuberculosis was used to cover it up to avoid discrimination in my community. This is because it was believed that only sexual immorality caused AIDS, which is not the case. There are many forms of transmission. When it comes to women, it is often their husbands who infect them, as it is common for men, even married men, to have concurrent partners. Men pass the disease from woman to woman, contributing to the disproportionate number of women who have HIV. In Zambia, 16.1% of those infected are women, compared to 12.3% of men.
I was too young to understand why this was happening in my community, especially to my dear sister; yet my heart was filled with sorrow. I could not bear the thought that other women in my country were dying at the hands of this deadly illness.
After my sister’s death, tension in my family mounted. Everybody wanted to play the blame game. My mother could not accept that one of her girls had passed on—I remember watching her cry every day. I felt helpless to help her through this immense loss.
One day, my sister’s husband called a family meeting. He confessed to being the one who had transmitted the virus to her. You can only imagine how angry and bitter our family was; we lost all respect for him and never wanted to see him again. Perhaps this was unfair, because he also was infected with HIV/AIDS. But it is important that men and women who are infected share their statuses and take precautions. I was glad when my mother called a family meeting about a year later to encourage all of us to forgive and accept him back into our family.
After the tragic loss of my sister, my life has never been the same. I have a calling—I am dedicated to speaking out for women who have no voice, for women who are often impacted by the selfish acts of those in my community.
I call on the men in our community to step up and wage this battle against AIDS with us. It is imperative that men become a part of the battle to fight this disease in Zambia. They must declare their statuses to each partner. I lost my sister because my brother-in-law was too afraid to share that he was HIV+ with her. We must decrease stigma so that men and women feel empowered to share their statuses with each other—and then, we must make sure that the right precautions are taken to avoid transmission of this disease.
I do not want anyone else to go through the loss my family experienced. I know too many people who have been impacted by HIV and AIDS. Just this week, I lost my aunt to the illness.
I dream of a day when we can call Zambia a country that is free of this virus—a day when we are no longer losing our women and men to a preventable disease. I believe this day is possible; I believe our future is bright. It will take concerted effort from men, women, the international community, and grassroots organizations, but I know we will get there.
This story was produced in collaboration with the International Reporting Project and World Pulse. In July 2013, World Pulse Managing Editor Corine Milano traveled to Zambia as an IRP Fellow to meet with experts on global health issues; go on site visits to some of this country’s most successful projects; and to work with World Pulse community members to tell their stories about global health in their country.